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Cirque Du Soleil
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Julius Curcio
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"Come Alive"
Changing Into Me
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Feature [Issue #10]
Ray Charles: Ray Charles: An American Genius
By Jon McAuliffe
Genius Loves Company (CD Concord/Hear Music)

He probably had more to do with bringing a modern perspective to American music than any other artist of his or succeeding generations. Jazz, blues, rhythm & blues, rock & roll, gospel, country, and pop music all felt Ray Charles’ direct influence in the form of one word that has been universally used to describe him and his music, and would eventually become its own genre – Soul. .

For all his many accomplishments, Ray Charles embodied soulfulness like few before him. Heard to perhaps greatest effect in his transcendent vocal performances, wherein he mixed the raw materials of blues, gospel, and jazz with an unbridled depth of emotion that cut across all genres, Charles generated a sound no one had ever heard before: a wild cry of freedom and pain and power. To Ray, however, it was more a talent for arrangement, as he recently told his biographer, David Ritz:

Ritz: “When they say you invented soul music, you’re going to argue?”

Charles: “Maybe I put together two things that hadn’t been put together before, but give credit to the church singers and the bluesmen who I got it from . . . Let people know that it didn’t come from me. It came from before me.”

Regularly referred to as “The Genius,” before the terms ‘genius’ or ‘soul’ would be routinely applied to anyone with even the smallest amount of musical acumen, Ray Charles commanded the respect of some of the world’s greatest musicians. His virtuosity and originality as a musician and composer were enough. But Ray also had a quick ear that, combined with an inventive ability to arrange for small groups, large orchestras, or solo pieces, was practically without peer unless one goes back to the likes of Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, or Art Tatum, all influences. Listen, for example, to his solo piano interpretation of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Splitting the minor key melody into two lines of dissonant harmony, Ray expands the character of the melody, uncommon with dissonance, to re-emphasize the richness of that melody; typical in the uniqueness of his arrangements.

A famous story is told about Charles during the sessions for Genius + Soul = Jazz (Atlantic). The entire Count Basie band, minus Count, but adding seven members from Duke Ellington’s band, had been hired to accompany Ray. The men, prestigious jazzers with little or no respect for pop success, were hesitant to accept Ray’s credentials. Atlantic’s Neshui Ertegun recalled the earliest sessions: “(Here’s) this blind piano player, who’s the star of all this, and (the musicians) weren’t too sure (he) deserved (it). They’re kinda looking down, making little cracks. I could see the atmosphere was not too cool. (At one point) Ray called me and said something like ‘the 4th bar, the 3rd trumpet player, there’s a bad note.’ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ He said, ‘I’m telling you there’s a bad note.’ I called the arranger (Quincy Jones) and said, ‘Ray says there’s a bad note.’ He said, ‘Impossible. I didn’t hear it.’ I said, ‘There’s only one thing to do. Have the trumpets play one by one and we’ll see.’ So they each played and sure enough, the 3rd trumpet player was hitting a wrong note. Quincy said, ‘I’ve never seen ears like that.’ And the whole band applauded. They couldn’t believe it. It saved the session. From then on they worked like never before.”

Commenting on this incident, Ray said, “Well, they talk about that story, but there’s nothing unusual about that. After all, I can hear and I do, at least I think I know a little bit about music, so if somebody’s playing a wrong note, if you hear well you’re gonna hear it.” Ray may have been blind; but he sure as hell wasn’t deaf!

Many stories are told about Ray Charles, but the best are always musical. Most everyone knows that Charles reinvented Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia” to the point where it’s now considered his own. And one of the first points of contact for anyone researching Ray’s music would be 1959’s hellacious “What’d I Say,” probably the most intense piece of black musical expression to appear on commercial radio to that point, opening wider the door to African American expression in those pre-Motown days.

Ray’s best and most popular sides cross over three labels, primarily: Atlantic in the ‘50s, ABC in the ‘60s and Tangerine, thereafter. Most of these are found on Atlantic/Rhino reissues. Start with the Atlantic/Rhino 53 cut, three-disc box The Birth of Soul, and hear why Ray was indispensable to American music: “What’d I Say;” “Early In The Morning;” “Losing Hand;” “Mess Around;” “Mary Ann;” “Drown In My Own Tears;” “Lonely Avenue;” “Rockhouse;” “Night Time Is The Right Time;” and plenty more. Then move on to Rhino’s 40 cut Blues + Jazz, a two-disc set duplicating some of the previous box, but also containing classics like “The Man I Love,” and Milt Jackson/David Fathead Newman sides like “Love On My Mind and Willow Weep For Me.”

Ray’s ABC recordings, while somewhat more commercial, are still among his best: “Hit The Road Jack;” “The Danger Zone;” “Ruby;” “Let’s Go Get Stoned;” “Unchain My Heart;” and more. Of course, the sides from the genre-breaking Modern Sounds In Country & Western albums (“Born To Lose;” “I Can’t Stop Loving You;” “Busted;” et al.) make clear the connections between R&B, blues, and country, and illustrate the interpretational possibilities beyond what had been previously supposed. Rhino owns Ray’s ABC catalog and have released portions of it.

Ray’s final album, Genius Loves Company (Concord/Hear), was released August 31st. While not in the same league with his classics, it features 12 duets between Ray and celebrity vocalists, the best of which co-star Van Morrison, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, and Natalie Cole. Natalie’s affection for Ray is clearly heard as she duets with him on “Fever.” In a way, it brings Ray full circle in the end, as Natalie’s father, Nat King Cole, was Ray’s original influence 50+ years ago when he made his very first recordings.

Genius Loves Company
Concord/Hear Music

Ray Charles: An American Genius Ray Charles Genius Loves Company

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